9 January 1890|
Malé Svatoňovice, Bohemia, Austrian-Hungarian Empire (now the Czech Republic)
|Died||25 December 1938
Prague, Czechoslovak Republic (now the Czech Republic)
Karel Čapek (Czech: [ˈkarɛl ˈtʃapɛk] ( listen)) (January 9, 1890 – December 25, 1938) was a Czech writer of the early 20th century best known for his science fiction, including his novel War with the Newts and the play R.U.R that introduced the word robot.
Born in 1890 in the Bohemian mountain village of Malé Svatoňovice to an overbearing, emotional mother and a distant yet adored father, Čapek was the youngest of three siblings. Čapek would maintain a close relationship with his brother Josef, living and writing with him throughout his adult life.
Čapek became enamored with the visual arts in his teenage years, especially Cubism. He studied in Prague at Charles University and at the Sorbonne in Paris. Exempted from military service due to the spinal problems that would haunt him his whole life, Čapek observed World War I from Prague. His political views were strongly affected by the war, and as a budding journalist he began to write on topics like nationalism and totalitarianism. Through social circles, the young writer developed close relationships with many of the political leaders of the nascent Czechoslovakian state. This included Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his son Jan, who would later become foreign secretary.
His early attempts at fiction were mostly plays written with brother Josef. Čapek's first international success was Rossum’s Universal Robots, a dystopian work about a bad day at a factory populated with sentient androids. The play was translated into English in 1922, and was being performed in the UK and America by 1923. Throughout the 1920s, Čapek worked in many writing genres, producing both fiction and non-fiction, but worked primarily as a journalist.
In the 1930s, Čapek's work focused on the threat of brutal national socialist and fascist dictatorships. His most productive years were during the The First Republic of Czechoslovakia (1918–1938). He wrote Talks with T. G. Masaryk – Masaryk was a Czechoslovak patriot, the first President of Czechoslovakia, and a regular guest at Čapek's "Friday Men" garden parties for leading Czech intellectuals. Čapek was also a member of Masaryk's Hrad political network. This extraordinary relationship between the writer and the political leader may be unique. He also became a member of International PEN and established, and was first president of, the Czechoslovak Pen Club.
Soon after 1938 it became clear that the Western allies (France, Great Britain) had failed to fulfill the agreements(Western betrayal), and failed to defend Czechoslovakia against Adolf Hitler. Karel Čapek refused to leave his country – despite the fact that the Nazi Gestapo had named him Czechoslovakia's "public enemy number two." Though he suffered all his life from the condition spondyloarthritis, Karel Čapek died of double pneumonia on December 25, 1938 shortly after part of Czechoslovakia was annexed by Nazi Germany following the so-called Munich Agreement. Čapek is buried at the Vyšehrad cemetery in Prague. His brother Josef Čapek, a painter and writer, died in the Nazi Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
K.Čapek wrote with intelligence and humor on a wide variety of subjects. His works are known for their interesting and precise description of reality. Čapek is renowned for his excellent work with the Czech language. He is known as a science fiction author, who wrote before science fiction became widely recognized as a separate genre. Capek can be considered as one of the founders of classical, non-hardcore European science fiction which aims on possible future (or alternative) social and human evolution on Earth.
Many of his works discuss ethical aspects of industrial inventions and processes already anticipated in the first half of the 20th century. These include mass production, nuclear weapon, and post-human intelligent beings such as robots or salamanders.
Čapek also expressed fear from social disasters, dictatorship, violence, human stupidity, the unlimited power of corporations, and greed. Capek tried to find hope, and the way out. Čapek's literary heirs include Ray Bradbury, Salman Rushdie, Brian Aldiss, and Dan Simmons.
Ivan Klíma, in his biography of Čapek, notes his influence on modern Czech literature, as well as on the development of Czech as a written language. Čapek, along with contemporaries like Jaroslav Hašek, spurned part of the early 20th century revival in written Czech thanks to their decision to use the vernacular. Klíma writes, "It is thanks to Čapek that the written Czech language grew closer to the language people actually spoke". Čapek was also a translator, and his translations of French poetry into the language inspired a new generation of Czech poets.
His other books and plays include detective stories, novels, fairy tales and theatre plays, and even a book on gardening. His most important works attempt to resolve problems of epistemology, to answer the question: "What is knowledge?" Examples include Tales from Two Pockets, and the first book of the trilogy of novels Hordubal, Meteor, and An Ordinary Life.
After World War II, Čapek's work was only reluctantly accepted by the communist government of Czechoslovakia, because during his life he had refused to accept communism as a viable alternative. He was the first in a series of influential non-marxist intellectuals who wrote a newspaper essay in a series called "Why I am not a Communist".
In 2009 (70 years after his death), a book was published containing extensive correspondence by Karel Čapek, in which the writer discusses the subjects of pacifism and his conscientious objection to military service with lawyer Jindřich Groag from Brno. Until then, only a portion of these letters were known.
Etymology of robot 
Karel Čapek introduced and made popular the frequently used international word robot, which first appeared in his play R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) in 1920. While it is frequently thought that he was the originator of the word, he wrote a short letter in reference to an article in the Oxford English Dictionary etymology in which he named his brother, painter and writer Josef Čapek, as its actual inventor. In an article in the Czech journal Lidové noviny in 1933, he also explained that he had originally wanted to call the creatures laboři (from Latin labor, work). However, he did not like the word, seeing it as too artificial, and sought advice from his brother Josef, who suggested roboti (robots in English).
The word robot comes from the word robota, meaning literally "serf labor", and, figuratively, "drudgery" or "hard work" in modern Czech (in Slovak, Russian, Polish, archaic Czech and other Slavic languages the cognate word means simply "work", comparable to German arbeit, with the same meaning.).
An outline of Čapek's works 
Works which can be considered as science fiction 
- 1920 – R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) (Rossumovi univerzální roboti) – play with one of the first examples of artificial human-like beings in art and literature.
- 1922 – The Makropulos Affair (Věc Makropulos) – play about human immortality, not really from a science-fiction point of view. The celebrated opera by Leoš Janáček is based on it.
- 1922 – The Absolute at Large (Továrna na absolutno) – novel which can be interpreted as a vision of consumer society.
- 1922 – Krakatit – novel, the plot of which includes a prediction of a nuclear-weapon-like explosive.
- 1936 – War with the Newts (Válka s mloky) – satirical dystopian novel.
Anti-Nazi plays from the 1930s 
- 1937 – The White Disease (Bílá nemoc) – earlier translated as Power and Glory
- 1938 – The Mother (Matka)
Other works 
- Stories from a Pocket and Stories from Another Pocket (Povídky z jedné a z druhé kapsy) — a common name for a cycle of short detective stories (5–10 pages long) that shared common attitude and characters, including The Last Judgement.
- How it is Made (Jak se co dělá) — satiric novels on the life of theatre, newspaper and film studio.
- The Gardener's Year (Zahradníkův rok, 1929) is exactly what it says it is: a year-round guide to gardening, charmingly written, with illustrations by his brother Josef Čapek.
- Pictures from the Insects' Life (Ze života hmyzu), also known as The Insect Play or The Life of the Insects, with Josef Čapek, a satire in which insects stand in for various human characteristics: the flighty, vain butterfly, the obsequious, self-serving dung beetle.
- Apocryphal Tales (Kniha apokryfů, 1932, 2nd edition 1945) – short stories about literary and historical characters, such as Hamlet, a struggling playwright, Pontius Pilate, Don Juan, Alexander arguing with his teacher Aristotle, and Sarah and Abraham attempting to name ten good people so Sodom can be saved: "What do you have against Namuel? He's stupid but he's pious."
- Nine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in for Good Measure (Devatero Pohádek a ještě jedna od Josefa Čapka jako přívažek, 1932)
- Dashenka, or the Life of a Puppy (Dášenka čili Život štěněte, 1933)
Travel books 
- Letters from Italy (Italské listy, 1923)
- Letters from England (Anglické listy, 1924)
- Letters from Spain (Výlet do Španěl, 1930)
- Letters from Holland (Obrázky z Holandska, 1932)
- Travels in the North (Cesta na Sever, 1936)
Selected bibliography 
- The Absolute at Large, 1922 (in Czech), 1927, The Macmillan Company, New York, translator uncredited. Also published June 1975, Garland Publishing ISBN 0-8240-1403-0,
- Apocryphal Tales, 1945 (in Czech), May 1997, Catbird Press Paperback ISBN 0-945774-34-6, Translated by Norma Comrada
- An Atomic Phantasy: Krakatit or simply Krakatit, 1924 (in Czech)
- Cross Roads, 2002, Catbird Press, ISBN 0-945774-55-9 cloth; 0-945774-54-0 trade paperback. Translation by Norma Comrada of "Boží muka" (1917) and "Trapné povídky" (1921).
- Nine Fairy Tales: And One More Thrown in for Good Measure, October 1996, Northwestern Univ Press Paperback Reissue Edition, ISBN 0-8101-1464-X. Illustrated by Josef Capek, Translated by Dagmar Herrmann
- R.U.R, March 1970, Pocket Books ISBN 0-671-46605-4
- Tales from Two Pockets 1928-9 (in Czech), 1994, Catbird Press Paperback, ISBN 0-945774-25-7. Translation by Norma Comrada.
- Talks With T.G. Masaryk Non-fiction. Biography of T.G. Masaryk, founder of Czechoslovakia.
- Three Novels: Hordubal, Meteor, An Ordinary Live, 1933–34, Translated by M. and R. Weatherall, 1990, Catbird Press
- Toward the Radical Center: A Karel Capek Reader. Collection of stories, plays and columns. Edited by Peter Kussi, Catbird Press ISBN 0-945774-07-9
- War with the Newts 1936 (in Czech), May 1967, Berkley Medallion Edition Paperback. Translated by M. & R. Weatherall, March 1990, Catbird Press paperback, ISBN 0-945774-10-9, October 1996, Northwestern University Press paperback ISBN 0-8101-1468-2
Another English translation by Ewald Osers ISBN 978-0-945774-10-5
Čapek biographies in English 
- Karel Čapek: An Essay by Alexander Matuška, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1964. Translation from the Slovak by Cathryn Alan of Člověk protí zkaze: Pokus o Karla Čapka.
- Karel Čapek by William E. Harkins, Columbia University Press, 1962.
- Karel Čapek: In Pursuit of Truth, Tolerance and Trust by Bohuslava R. Bradbrook, Sussex Academic Press, 1998, ISBN 1-898723-85-0.
- Karel Čapek: Life and Work by Ivan Klíma, Catbird Press, 2002, ISBN 0-945774-53-2. Translation from the Czech by Norma Comrada of Velký věk chce mít tež velké mordy: Život a dílo Karla Čapka.
Čapek in popular culture 
- On the science fiction cartoon show Futurama (season 1, episode 5 – "Fear of a Bot Planet"), a planet inhabited entirely by robots was named "Chapek 9", as a reference to Karel Čapek's coining of the term "robot".
- In the Star Trek episode "Requiem for Methuselah", the android Rayna Kapec was named in honor of Čapek.
- A recurring character in the cartoon show Batman: The Animated Series was named Karl Rossum. He was an inventor that specialized in robots.
- The story "Big Robots" in Judge Dredd Megazine (#257 – ?) features a Mega-City One tower block named "Karel Čapek" which turned out to be a giant robot.
- At least two computer programming languages were named for Čapek:
- In the computer game Red Faction there is a character named Dr. Capek, who is involved in experiments with nanotechnology.
- The Japanese H-game R.U.R.U.R. uses "Čapek" as a term for a specific type of robot: biological machines made from flesh mixed in a vat with nanomachines.
- There is a Dr. Capek in Robert Heinlein's novel Double Star.
- On the TV show Dollhouse, the parent corporation is named Rossum.
- In the video game Mass Effect 2, one mission requires the player to shut down a factory which produces defective robots on a planet called Capek.
See also 
Further reading 
- Swirski, Peter. "Chapter 4 Karel Čapek and the Politics of Memory" From LowBrow to Nobrow. Montreal, London: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2005.
- Milner, Andrew. "Chapter 6 From Rossums Universal Robots to Buffy the Vampire Slayer" Literature, Culture and Society. London, New York: Routledge, 2005.
- Klima, Ivan (2001). Karel Čapek: Life and Work. New Haven, CT: Catbird Press. pp. 191–200. ISBN 0-945774-53-2.
- Tobranova-Kuhnnova, Sarka (1988). Believe in People: The essential Karel Capek. London: Faber and Faber. pp. xvii – xxxvi. ISBN 978-0-571-23162-1.
- Talks with T. G. Masaryk at Google Books
- "...his brother and artistic collaborator Josef met his death in Bergen-Belsen." Adam Roberts, "Introduction", to RUR & War with the Newts. London, Gollancz, 2011, ISBN 0575099453 (p.vi).
- The Gardener's Year, illustrated by Josef Čapek. First published in Prague, 1929. English edition London: George Allen & Unwin, 1931
- K. Čapek, Why I am not a Communist? Přítomnost 4 December 1924.
- „Vojáku Vladimíre...“: Karel Čapek, Jindřich Groag a odpírači vojenské služby, Nakladatelství Zdeněk Bauer, Prague 2009.
- Karel Capek – Who did actually invent the word "robot" and what does it mean? at capek.misto.cz
- The Gardener's Year at Google Books
- Apocryphal Tales at Google Books
- Dashenka, or the Life of a Puppy at Google Books
- Letters from Italy at Google Books
- Letters from England at Google Books
- Letters from Spain at Google Books
- Letters from Holland at Google Books
- Travels in the North at Google Books
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- Karel Čapek, 1890—1938 – brief biography, with information about the writer's plays and novels
- Further links
- Karel Čapek page at Catbird Press, a publisher of several Čapek translations
- Works by Karel Capek at Project Gutenberg
- RUR and War with the Newts in English translation
- Čapek in English translation by David Wyllie
- The monument of Karel Čapek
- Čapek, Karel: Válka s Mloky Czech version, online book
- Karel Čapek entry at the Literary Encyclopedia
- (Czech) Complete work of Karel Capek is available in fulltext on the web sites of Municipal library in Prague
- Krakatit Czech online PDF
- R.U.R. Czech online PDF
- Karel Čapek at Czechoslovak book network Baila.net